In this edition of his weekly column, ESPN's lead Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae writes that while Borussia Dortmund are technically in with a shout in the league title race, no one at the club wants to speak boldly about catching all-conquering Bayern Munich. Squad plans for the future are intriguing, but have several question marks hovering over them. All in all, it's an uncertain time.
Admit it: some of you were waiting for Borussia Dortmund to live up to all the cliches about them last Sunday. With Bayern having suffered a hair-raising and chaotic 4-2 reverse at VfL Bochum the day before (stream the replay on ESPN+ in the U.S.), the stage seemed set for the Schwarzgelben to squander their chance to reduce the deficit at the top of the Bundesliga table to six points. After all, it's happened before.
Instead, Marco Rose's team delivered one of their most assured performances of the season in accelerating away from Union Berlin in Kopenick. There was nothing flattering about the 3-0 triumph in which captain Marco Reus scored twice in the opening 25 minutes and played a starring role (stream the replay on ESPN+ in the U.S.).
In most leagues, being six points behind with 12 rounds left -- and a head-to-head contest with the leaders to come -- would represent a fighting chance. However, from a Dortmund point of view, the spectre of Bayern's nine successive titles looms large and no one dares get carried away based on a single swing of the pendulum. After all, Dortmund had spent last week at their Brackel HQ, digesting and trying to remove from the collective memory bank an error-strewn 5-2 defeat at home against their closest pursuers in the battle for second place: Bayer Leverkusen. First things first.
So what did BVB get right in the southeastern outskirts of Berlin? It started with a much more effective shape in a 4-2-3-1 formation that allowed for significantly better protection of a previously exposed back four.
One of Dortmund's problems this season has been getting caught by the opposition when in Aufbau (or "build-up") mode themselves. The new shape, with midfielders Axel Witsel and Mahmoud Dahoud acting as windscreen wipers, enabled Dan-Axel Zagadou (who endured a nightmare against Leverkusen) to look considerably more composed. Having Mats Hummels healthy again alongside him in defence also helped visibly.
The other advantage of this tactical tweak was that it put Reus in his favoured No. 10 position. At times in Rose's oft-favoured 4-3-3, Reus has had to shift more to the right of the attack and he's never quite the same potent threat when not immediately behind the main striker, from where he can make well-timed runs and cause havoc for those tasked with picking up his movement.
Criticism has been levelled against BVB for being overly reliant on Erling Haaland and Jude Bellingham, but Haaland was again absent due to his muscular injury and Bellingham had one of his more ordinary outings.
After the win, having closed the points gap, Reus and Hummels refused to get drawn into discussions about what it will take to "stop" Bayern. Reus gives the impression he's tired of such talk, and he said as much. Hummels felt it was more important to have moved 12 points clear of the teams occupying fifth place, including Union.
Cementing a Champions League spot is priority No. 1. Avoiding mishaps in that chase, as opposed to hunting down the Rekordmeister, something ex-Bayern centre-back Hummels views as a nice thing to dream about more than a realistic scenario, represents the realpolitik of the situation Dortmund are in.
Remember: Dortmund had to scrap from start to finish just to get into Europe's premier club competition. That they failed to progress from what looked like a manageable Champions League group this season goes down as a bitter disappointment. Club CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke has tried to give the players motivation in the knockout stage of the Europa League, starting against Rangers on Thursday. Win a trophy BVB have never lifted before, the logic goes, and recoup some of the money lost through the Champions League misadventure in the process. It might be difficult, but why not?
With 2. Bundesliga upstarts St. Pauli having knocked holders Dortmund out of the DFB-Pokal, there is a sense that this is a squad that feels it has something to prove in every game. Better than the rest, other than Bayern, but still some way below their main foes.
Looking ahead, the summer promises to be fascinating. Michael Zorc will vacate his sporting director's chair after nearly a quarter of a century, and it will become Sebastian Kehl's show. Kehl, a club great (like Zorc) on the pitch, has already pulled off something of a coup in securing Bayern's Niklas Sule as a free agent for next season, and he'll do his best to sign SC Freiburg's Nico Schlotterbeck and FC Salzburg's Karim Adeyemi.
Of course, there will be departures to withstand, and likely significant ones if Haaland and Manuel Akanji decide to call time on their respective stints at the club. There's also still a big concern regarding a lack of depth; for example, there's still a right-back issue. Thomas Meunier has improved this season, but were fans expecting a more complete player? I believe so. The paucity of strong options at both full-back positions is alarming.
Hand on heart, has Nico Schulz exuded confidence when he has filled in for Raphael Guerreiro? Not especially. Schulz strikes me as someone who really needs to play every week, but for a club slightly lower down the table.
All that said, there's a lot to be excited about. In Giovanni Reyna, Dortmund have the kind of young talent who can light up any top league with his dynamism. But Kehl's challenge lies in finding the right squad balance, not just sparkling individuals, something that has been elusive for BVB going back a number of years,
The law of averages says one of these years Bayern will slip, even if only marginally. Borussia Dortmund must make sure they are well-enough armed to make a fist of it when that happens.